Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011

The Forgiveness of Blood

House-arrest movies were an improbable subgenre at Toronto. Director Joshua Marston, in his first feature since the 2004 art-house hit Maria Full of Grace, journeys to Albania for his followup and finds medieval blood feuds still rampant in an isolated country. Nik (Tristan Halilaj) might be any 21st-century teenager: he plays video games, texts on his smart phone, hitches a ride on his pal's motorbike and clumsily woos a girl at school. But blood has been boiling for generations between his family and one nearby. When Nik's father and uncle get in a dispute with a man from the rival family and kill him, they are subject to the Kanun, an ancient "rule of blood" that allows the grieving relatives to kill any male in the offending clan. For safety's sake, Nik is confined to his home, where he watches Big Brother Albania and, like any restless teen who's been grounded, plots rebellion and escape.

Marston, who wrote the script with Andamion Murataj, is as fascinated as any Western visitor would be by the arcana of Albanian folklore, but he extracts universal truths about the burden of traditions imposed on the spirit of a modern kid who has no investment in them. The film's hope resides in Nik's younger sister Rudina (Sindi Laçej), who takes over her incarcerated father's horse-drawn bread route and proves a quiet, wily negotiator. Of course, Rudina is free to travel; she's a girl, while Nik must stay inside to cope with — as the film does — the conflicting moods of dread and ennui. In a sweet, sad scene, he receives a warm video from his girl friend and sends another back to his schoolmates — a cheerful message from a prisoner of an ancient, endless war.